Time to scrap predicted grades

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The GCSE and A-levels fiasco of last summer proved how predicted grades are a precarious base on which to determine young people’s future prospects. But what if we scrapped predicted grades altogether for a system that saw students applying after they’ve received their A-level results?

It’s under serious consideration from the Department for Education, who have launched a government consultation into moving to a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system. Results’ day would be moved from the middle of August to the end of July, and university terms would begin no earlier than the start of October to allow time to process applications.

The proposal is all about “levelling the playing field”, according to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. The system of predicted grades has been proven to negatively impact secondary school students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. UCL’s Institute of Education found that almost a quarter of high-ability applicants from lower-income households were under-predicted between 2013 and 2015. Further, the Sutton Trust found that 32% of students from state schools were likely to be underpredicted, compared to 26% from private schools.

Using predicted grades negatively impacts students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds

The move away from predicted grades is not only about dismantling a system that is preserving the attainment gap across schools in the UK, but allowing all A-level students to make the most informed decision they can as they progress to higher education. In 2020, one in five students who achieved grades higher than their predictions would have applied to universities with higher entry requirements if they’d known their final results before the application process. That’s 20% of students who’d have raised their aspirations if they’d simply known the real limits of their academic achievement.

The over-prediction of grades is as damaging to many students’ self-esteem and future prospects every year, who suddenly find the rug pulled from underneath them on results’ day, with very little time to make practical plans for the (now unoccupied) year ahead.

What a welcome change this new PQA system would therefore be for all A-level students applying to university. The long summer of anxious anticipation has become a sort of sadistic ritual we put 17-to-18-year-olds through every year, without questioning whether this is the only system available. At few other points in our lives are we given such a significant offer of personal advancement as a university place. But it currently comes with such huge preconditions attached to it as to make it an elongated source of intense anxiety. 

The current system also genuinely disadvantages students as they prepare to make the transition to university. I’ve experienced both applying with predicted grades and applying post-exam results myself. I originally firmed the University of Edinburgh before I took my A levels. I got the grades, started my studies there, but withdrew after completing my first year (I hoped I could be happier elsewhere, and, thanks to Durham, I was right).

The process of applying “PQA”, with my grades already in the bag, was transformational. I reapplied in October 2019, and received my offer from Durham the following February. There was no stressful period of waiting for results, and I then had six whole months to prepare to restart university. And, more importantly, no last-minute dash to IKEA whilst desperately trying to navigate the blackhole of DUO to find my reading list.

At few other points in life are we given such a significant offer of personal advancement as a university place

A PQA system would surely simplify the process for university admissions offices too. With all the information available to them, institutions will be able to pick from a realistic pool of applicants, rather than calculating the correct offers-to-places ratio to ensure they fill their courses each year.

Australia, Germany, France, the USA, Sweden, Singapore and South Africa (amongst many others) all offer university places based on actual exam grades; globally, the UK is almost alone in its current system of predicted grades. Why should we continue with such an anomalous system that clearly hinders the already disadvantaged?

Over the coming months Gavin Williamson and colleagues will consult with schools, colleges, and universities (and hopefully some actual A-level students too) about this proposed overhaul of the university admissions system. The class of 2021 won’t be affected by any changes, but this is a highly promising proposal for future generations of university applicants.

Image: Lifetracks via Flickr

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